Biography of William Marshal (1146-1219), Earl of Pembroke, the epitome of medieval chivalry, who battled for great kings (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart) and the not-so-great (Henry III).
Marshal’s reputation stems from a fulsome epic poem commissioned after his death (“In its pages William almost became the living embodiment of the mythical Arthurian knight, Lancelot”), which thrilled scholars when it turned up in 1861. Acknowledging its value as well as its bias—it presented its hero “as the perfect knight”—Asbridge (Medieval History/Univ. of London; The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, 2010) delivers an intensively researched but lucid portrait of a knight who triumphed in an age much nastier than that of Arthur’s mythical kingdom. Son of a minor noble, Marshal matured in a time when England still ruled much of France. After training in the household of a great Norman magnate, he distinguished himself in tournaments, which were exceedingly popular during the day. These were not the formal jousts that proliferated in later centuries but rather brutal battles between groups of knights whose winners ransomed surviving losers. After serving Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marshal joined the court of her estranged husband, Henry II, where he prospered, fought for but occasionally betrayed Henry and his successors, and ended life as England’s most powerful royal retainer (“guardian of the realm”). Henry II passed much of his reign fighting the French, when he wasn’t fighting one of three ambitious sons anxious to unseat him. Matters did not improve after Henry’s death, so Marshal’s career comes across as a relentless series of intrigues, battles, atrocities, truces quickly broken, internal revolts and treason that often included Marshal for reasons the author must guess because historical evidence is lacking.
A valuable biography of an important figure in a distant, violent, barely comprehensible era.